Interview with Nike Sulway

"I love when every tiny element of a book feels essential and necessary"

Nike 2Nike Sulway is an Australian author who lives and works in Brisbane. In 2000, Nike won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Queensland Author for her novel, The Bone Flute, which was released by UQP in 2001 and subsequently shortlisted in the Commonwealth Writers Awards. Her children’s book, What the Sky Knows, was published in May 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. Her next adult novel, The True Green of Hope was released in August 2005. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Australian, Griffith Review, and Fantasy Magazine. Readers can find more from the author at her personal site, Lost For Words.

Her most recent novel, Rupetta, was published by Tartarus Press this past February and is currently available from Tartarus’s website in both hardback and e‑book form. I recently interviewed Sulway via email about her new novel and her writing in general, among other things… What kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you remember reading anything that stands out as especially unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?

Nike Sulway: I read intensely as a child, not just voraciously, but with a kind of embarrassing level of passion. I was the kid found lost and drooling in the stacks at the library, the one reading at parties. My mother regularly accused me of ignoring her, but really I was just reading and literally couldn’t hear her. I wish that disappearing into books was a skill I still had, but it’s harder now. I’m telling you this as a form of apology, or excuse, for the random lameness of my reading. Unlike the wunderkinds I regularly meet at those weird events where writers get together, I didn’t read the complete Shakespeare as a small child. The print was too small, and the book was too high up on the shelf for me to reach. I read anything and everything I could reach, and it all seemed impossibly weird to me. I loved Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. I read several versions of the Lives of the Saints, and the King James Bible (most of it;I skipped the boring bits). I read the Narnia books, and The Wind in the Willows, all the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie books (I had terrifying dreams about the banksia men), and The Muddle-Headed Wombat. I adored Digit Dick, who was small enough to sleep in a matchbox. I particularly adored Digit Dick and the Lost Opals, which featured Dick’s miniature Indigenous bestie, Wirra. I adored Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars, and read over and over and over again Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy, which always made me cry.

I adored Maurice Sendak, and the Brothers Grimm. The Famous Five, the Secret Seven. Nancy Drew. The Bobbsey Twins. Wind in the Willows. Winnie the Pooh. We had shelves and shelves of very British children’s stories, which seemed terribly exotic to me. Badgers and squirrels and elm trees and all that. Very strange stuff.

Biggles! Oh, how could I ever forget Biggles. I wanted to be Biggles.

I felt strange and uncomfortable about reading the books I snuck out of my parents’ bedroom: contraband. Nino Culotta’s They’re A Weird Mob; the terrifying sex and shopping novels of Judith Krantz. The Thorn Birds, Against the Wind. Mad Magazine.

Something that stands out as especially out of the ordinary? There’s Doctor Doolittle’s Garden, in which a giant lunar moth takes Doctor Doolittle to the moon. I loved all the Doolittle books, of course, and – being a child at the time I read them – unashamedly adored the movies starring good old Rex Harrison. But this book. This is when it went from odd to completely mysterious and magical, when Doolittle turned from a hack into an adventurer. A kind of mystical Darwin, voyaging out into the great unknown.

(Illustration included here for those readers who didn’t grow up in Australia!)

kids book How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words? What are your aspirations as a writer?

Sulway: If I could, I would live in the middle of a forest in a house made of books, a kind of sister to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Little children might come and nibble at the poetry in the windows, but they would be promptly taken inside and fattened up on good books. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I love the deceptive simplicity of really good books. I love books filled with sentences that make you look up, even if you’re riding alone on the train, wanting to read them out to someone. I love when every tiny element of a book feels essential and necessary. Fairy tales are often like that: they have that sense of being essential. Having read them, I feel as if they have become part of me, part of my experience of the world. I also feel as if everyone in the world should have those stories inside them, too. If I could write stories like that — stories that feel essential, stories that readers take inside themselves — I would be as happy as a witch in the woods. What are some of your favorite writers and stories, then? I’m especially curious to hear what your favorite fairy tale is!

Sulway: My favourite Grimm’s fairy tale is ‘The Six Swans’. The themes of longing and enforced silence speak very powerfully to me. The dead/disappeared children. The image of the mother screaming her grief into the earth still sends shudders through me. And I adore ‘The Goose Girl’. Those violent images of being silenced and foresworn, again. The horse’s head nailed to the city gates. So creepy. So black. They speak so powerfully to the themes of strong, violent, extreme forms of women’s loving. That’s what strikes me about them today, anyway, that they are stories of the extreme force of love.

I’m also a great lover of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’. I had a beautiful copy of this book as a small child, with dark, gorgeous but quite terrifying images. Think bloody footprints on the ballroom floor, and mermaids with sharp teeth, using seashells as knives to cut off their sister’s hair and fins.

I asked my daughter to remind me who my literary influences are, who I annoyed her with, and she reminded me about The Velveteen Rabbit.  Not a fairytale, strictly speaking, but very much like one. Tragedy, toys, Scarlet Fever. She also said she would love me forever if I said 50 Shades of Grey, but I refuse to do so.

As an adult, I re-read fairy tales regularly, but I also read other books. Books by adults. Really! I adore Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, and Anne Carson. I recently read and fell in love with Lauren Groff (Arcardia). I cannot get enough of Sarah Hall since reading The Carhullan Army one rainy Christmas Day. I adored Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch. I recently discovered Elizabeth Harrower (The Watch Tower). Right now, I’m reading a lot of novels by Australian women as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge, which is skewing my reading in a particular direction. I’m currently adoring Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, and Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love.

I would like to write sentences like Margo Lanagan’s. She is wicked, and wise.

I recently re-read all the Bronte novels, because I was lucky enough to be in the UK and to visit Haworth. I then re-read all the Jane Austen novels, because it seemed like the right thing to do next, and I hadn’t read them in a while. Reading them reminded me, again, of how good books can be made of a few very simple things. That nearly all good books are, I think, really about the human condition, about the very ordinary problem of how to live well, and why we fail at this so monumentally, so often. What inspires you the most in your writing? Where do you most frequently draw inspiration for your stories?

Sulway: There’s this wonderful little essay by Raymond Carver called ‘Fires’, and whenever I get asked about inspiration, I think about that. It’s a sad, almost shameful essay about how life, at one point in his life anyway, weighed so heavily on Carver that he had to write short stories. I would like to give an answer to this question that is as honest as that answer. I don’t feel inspired in the classical sense. No breath of the gods enters me while I sleep. I don’t need to get drunk or high to write. Sentences inspire me. The endless fascination of language, story, characters, places. The endlessly amazing magic trick of making stuff up. Sometimes I think that life isn’t magical enough, and that I write to make it feel more beautiful. Sometimes I think that life is so strange, so magical, so frightening, that I write to comfort myself (and perhaps others). Sometimes I read something and think ‘I could do better than that’. Sometimes I read something and think ‘THAT is the most perfect thing I’ve ever read. I think I’ll go and write something just like it.’ Sometimes, words fall out of my head onto the page as if by magic, but mostly only fragments of things, weird, unfamiliar things that nevertheless seem important. I push them around a bit. Add bits to them. Cut things off.

I read, and make notes, and clip stories and (more often) pictures from the newspaper. I scribble. I colour in. I work at inspiring myself, I guess. I work at creating the space into which a good idea might plant itself. Your recent novel, Rupetta, is such a unique story, in many ways. It feels both science fictional and fantastical at the same time, while retaining this glimmering edge of weirdness and this oddness of consciousness via Rupetta herself. How did you come up with the idea for the novel in the first place? What was the catalyst that got you started writing?

Sulway: Well, there’s a few things. I had heard the apocryphal story about Descartes’ doll. Do you know this story? It’s barely more than a rumour. So, Descartes. The man most famous for those three words: Cogito ergo sum. According to historical rumour, he once had a daughter, who died when she was five years old, in 1640, from scarlet fever. Decades later, in 1649, Descartes was summoned to the court of Queen Kristina, of Sweden. He travelled to Sweden by ship. Now, Descartes was by then an old man, physically frail, a bit … odd. He kept to himself in his cabin. One night, a storm came up. The ship was in danger, and the crew – being the kind of suspicious, magical thinkers of sailors in stories – thought of the weird little old man. They went to his cabin, burst in, and found a strange little box. I imagine it being like a coffin. Inside the box was a little girl. No, not a little girl. A doll that looked exactly like a little girl. And she opened her eyes, turned to look at them, and spoke to them. Well, you can imagine! A speaking doll! A woman on board, and not just a woman, but some weird creature. They threw her overboard.

The storm settled. They made it to Sweden. Descartes was a broken man. Kristina wanted him to get out of bed early, meet the bracing cold of the Swedish air. He had never been good at mornings, or at suffering the cold, and perhaps he was mourning, once again, his precious daughter. He died of pneumonia on February 11, 1650.

Descartes' "Wooden Daughter." Illustration for Newnes' Pictorial Knowledge (1932).

Descartes’ “Wooden Daughter.” Illustration for Newnes’ Pictorial Knowledge (1932).

What else? So many other things informed the writing of this book. I was reading Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (I can reach the shelf where it is kept now), and I wrote down this line from Autolycus: Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.

That line still resonates through the whole book for me. Underneath, I have written (in pencil, which means I felt tentative and unsure about what I was writing): Can a person’s actions or words by true, even if they are a fraud?

Also, all through the writing, I read and re-read Judith Wright’s poem Sonnet. I could not say enough, in my head, those lines “Here is the word that, when all words are said, shall compass more than speech”. In my head and heart, that word is the name of my lover, and in the novel, it is the same for each character. I wanted the reader to feel some sense of that, even if I never told them so.

Now let the draughtsman of my eyes be done
marking the line of petal and of hill.
Let the long commentary of the brain
be silent. Evening and the earth are one,
and bird and tree are simple and stand still.
Now, fragile heart swung in your webs of vein,
and perilous self won hardly out of clay,
gather the harvest of last light, and reap
the luminous fields of sunset for your bread.
Blurs the laborious focus of the day
and shadow brims the hillside slow as sleep.
Here is the word that, when all words are said,
shall compass more than speech. The sun is gone;
draws on the night at last; the dream draws on. What other kinds of literary and genre touchstones did you use as guides along the way, in writing Rupetta? Were any writers or stories particularly helpful to you, in helping you think of the kind of story you wanted to tell?

Sulway: I’m trying to think of particular stories that informed the writing of this one. Of course, I read a lot of stories about mechanical humans, fiction and non-fiction, but I felt really strongly that I didn’t want the novel to be a robot story, per se, so I avoided the classics of that genre, like Philip K Dick and so on. Weirdly, I still have this little twitch when someone calls Rupetta a robot novel. To me, Rupetta is not a robot at all. Her consciousness is not digital or mechanical, and for me that makes her something altogether different. I read a lot of stories about golems (Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem, Marge Piercy’s He, She and It), and lots of dark stories set in Prague, or cities that resemble Prague in the 17th century.

I re-read Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. I wanted to write something more female (not necessarily feminine), but with something of the seriousness of purpose, and the sense of magic and wonder that informs that book.

I read and re-read Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being. It’s non-fiction. It’s about … faith? Humanity? Loss? Beauty? It’s about everything that matters. One day, I would like to write a book half as fine as that one. Rupetta is the first step in that direction.

For a long time, of course, I had no idea what kind of story I wanted to tell, so it was hard to find models or ideas. I wanted to write a modern fairytale, though it’s not really a very contemporary book. In that, I was inspired by the works of Angela Carter. I always go back to Nights at the Circus. To Fevvers – the angel of the circus — and her interminable, inward-turning mystery. And to that gorgeous last line of hers, to the still bemused Walser, which says it all, all over again: to think I really fooled you. In many ways, the characters feel so personal, so lifelike, especially the two narrators, Rupetta and Henri, who are such strong, complex characters. How did you refine these characters and their stories over the course of the novel? Do you feel like you left something of yourself or other women in your life within the characters somehow?

Sulway: I’m really thrilled that you think of Rupetta and Henri as strong, complex and lifelike! For me, they are (now) like dear and much missed friends. Dead friends, perhaps, because they are gone from me now, and I can only read about them, or remember them.

I think of writing a character as being like falling in love. This is an old idea of mine. I think a lot about the experience of falling in love: how it is both particular – even secret and unconscious – and very common. Most people fall in love at least once in their lives. I think that there is a similarity for a reader (and a writer) between the experience of falling in love, and the process of ‘falling’ for a character. You see them across an empty room. Just a glimpse. Something has to draw you in. Some magic, some sense of familiarity and fascination. Something that makes you want to get closer. That’s what I want to capture the first time you meet an important character. That sense of longing to get closer, of fascination. And then, it’s simple. A few dates. Some fascinating conversation. Slow revelation. That sense you get, as a reader, of having gone down a path with a character, understanding their good and bad decisions, walking with them. To me, a good character – a well-written character – is a companion.

I worked hard to know the whole story of Henri and of Rupetta, and then to cut away the bits that readers didn’t need. I worked hard to leave only on the page what was necessary and interesting, and revealing, and to leave some part of them mysterious, right to the end. So I hope! It sounds a bit wanky to write that down, but for me, a really good character is never complete. They are like a real person, endless and in the end unknowable. I wanted to leave the reader with a sense that there were still stories to tell, lives to live.

I do draw on what I know about life, and people, in writing. I guess most writers do. But I’m wary of drawing neat lines between what’s on the page and what I’ve seen or experienced. It’s not that clear-cut for me. The lines of connection are not lines at all. Just then, this image came into my head of the streamers people throw across between a departing ship and the people on shore, and how after the boat pulls away, the streamers snap, and there are so many beautiful threads fluttering there against the side of the ship, and they do have a historical connection to the strips of coloured paper on the shore, but they are their own thing now. Those threads are fluttering free, more in conversation with each other, and the ship, and the hands in which they are held, than with the people and streamers onshore. What do you want to see more of, in regards to literature and art?

Sulway: Good editing. There’s not enough of it around any more. Good, robust editing that challenges writers, makes them their best selves.

Stories about women, and particularly about women and children. Real stories, about the challenges of parenthood, in all its messy, glorious reality. Stories about lesbians that aren’t coming out stories (though those are important). Stories that take my breath away. Stories that become as necessary to me as breathing. Stories written from a deep sense of authentic and honest courage. Finally, what’s the weirdest story you’ve ever read, and why?

Sulway: Well, I’m a big fan of Robert Coover, particularly Pinocchio in Venice. But read The Public Burning, too. Promise? Or, no, read Pinocchio first, especially if you’ve read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. Read it with a good bottle of wine on your bedside table, a velveteen cloak around your shoulders, and a lecherous boy at your feet.

Having said that, though, probably the writer I most adore whose work is weird and fantastical, because he undoes all the buttons of language, is the glorious Samuel Beckett. Read him. Cut his books up into little word pieces and eat the words one by one. Start with Watt. Or the beautiful, bewitching, en-stranging Worstward Ho, which contains one of my favourite passages:

No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on its way. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit. Then on from there. Bit by bit. Till up at last.

Any or all of these will shine language up again for you, I hope, as they do for me each time. Beckett will make you forget your mother tongue and re-learn it.

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